Scientific American just posted this article on how to have a longer marriage. Researcher John Gottman found that there are four characteristics of an unhappy marriage and that the presence of those four characteristics predicted divorce with 93% accuracy. “These four toxic behaviors are called contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.” Yikes! It seems like those behaviors pop up in every marriage, right?
The answer is a big no. Let’s start with the first trait. While we may resent a spouse for leaving his or her dishes out, it rarely rises to the level of contempt. Gottman describes contempt as a combination of anger and disgust. As you can tell, it’s the disgust that makes this so unique and damaging. Likewise, while we may all criticize our spouse from time to time, it’s generally a bad sign if you begin criticizing a defect in your spouse. Think of it as criticizing an action versus criticizing a personality trait. Defensiveness and stonewalling are sort of two peas in a pod and they both speak to a couple’s inability to communicate openly and honestly. This, in turn, erodes trust and prevents relationship building. We all fight, but it’s important to admit your own faults, recognize your contributions to the conflict, and allow the other person to speak and be heard.
Gottman does have a few suggestions for couples. I have pasted them in their entirety below.
- Rather than phrasing a complaints as a criticism of your partner’s personality or traits, try to emphasize state attributions. Instead of complaining about your partner’s personality, raise complaints or problems about the situation or the behavior.
- Instead of “playing the victim” and getting defensive, accept responsibility for your role in a conflict. This doesn’t mean shouldering all of the blame; rather, it means recognizing and acknowledging anything that you might have done, or any way in which you are not blameless.
- Build a “culture of appreciation,” so both partners see each other with respect and appreciation instead of contempt, resentment, and disgust. Emphasize the importance of respecting each other and seeing each others’ interests, hobbies, and passions as worthwhile.
- If you are someone who frequently ends up stonewalling, or disengaging from potential conflict, figure out if this is because the fight is too overstimulating. If so, you can engage in something called “physiological self-soothing,” which basically just means taking deep breaths and trying to mindfully relax. By focusing on the breath and calming down, it can become easier to have a difficult conversation without becoming so emotionally overaroused that disengagement seems like the only way to cope.
It’s a great article and an easy read. Oh, and did I mention that Scientific American illustrated each one of these examples with clips from Keeping Up With The Kardashians? If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.